In no particular order…
Devotion, Hannah Kent
Readers of Kent’s other books Burial Rites and The Good People, will recognise the connection with physicality and place, as well as the spiritual backdrop and themes. Devotion is a novel about the German religious refugees who settled in Hahndorf in South Australia. We meet Hanne when her family is living under oppression in Germany but the greater marginalisation for her is how she doesn’t fit within her own . But one day Thea’s family moves to the village and Hanne’s loneliness is sated by their instant connection, even as the villagers are suspicious of Thea’s mother. As the community embarks on a six month long journey to set up life on the other side of the world, all these feelings roil… Halfway through there is a HUGE plot twist that completely threw me! For so long after that I couldn’t work out what the book was about but Kent brought it home.
The Kaya Chronicles, CharlotTe McConaghy
In Kaya, lovers’ souls bond to each other for life and they die together. Except when Ava’s bondmate died, she didn’t. Now a shadow person, soulless and her experiences of the world muted, she sets out to avenge his death by killing the enemy Pirenti queen, but when she is captured, for the first time, a Kayan and a Pirenti start to talk… I’ve read a lot of these sorts of trilogies and most of the time books 2 and 3 are nowhere near as satisfying as book 1. However, this series is elevated over its contemporaries because each book follows a different sent of protagonists and examines a different aspect of the bonded couple. There are some worn tropes, like a corrupt monarchy or ruling system in need of democracy but there are other more novel aspects to it as well such as cross-cultural romance, some of the characters having neuro-divergent traits, and some reflection on loving people who are difficult, violent or distant. Content warning though.
A Room Made of Leaves, Kate Grenville
This is the supposed lost private diary of Elizabeth Macarthur, outwardly the dutiful wife of John Macarthur, best known as the father of Australia’s wool industry. Little is known about Elizabeth Macarthur which leaves Grenville plenty of scope and the book is far more a work of fiction than it is historical. I say that because Grenville’s Elizabeth Macarthur is, I think, who we wish the colonists of this land we now call Australia were, or who I’d like to think I’d be if I were one of them. In Grenville’s hands Elizabeth Macarthur subtly opposes and manipulates her ruthless scoundrel of a husband, learns to love the land, and sees encounters with Aboriginal peoples as a chance for cross-cultural learning. In other words, Grenville writes modern progressive values into the story of colonial Australia. While it doesn’t whitewash the history (there are accounts of the frontier wars and massacres, for example) and it challenges the androcentric version of Australian history, I wonder whether it also allows us to distance ourselves from the colonists, to see them as a ‘them’ rather than as an ‘us’.
THe Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
Everyone knows the Iliad’s Achilles and Patroclus were close, but how close? This is the story from Patroclus’ perspective. The first half plays with that tension as Patroclus is fostered in Achilles’ father’s household and the two grow up together. The second half takes place in the Trojan War, asking all kinds of interesting ethical questions about love, loyalty and the value of human life. This book is moving and sensual and so well written it’s easy to read. I read Miller’s Circe afterwards which was more of a slow burn but also immersive and compelling.
The Good Luck Girls, Nicole Davis
Another YA, part fantasy, part western. Sisters Aster and Clementine and their friends are Good Luck Girls but that’s this world’s euphemism; they’re actually sex slaves, prevented from leaving their ‘home’ by raveners who reach into their brains to torture them for stepping out of line. When Clementine accidentally murders a ‘brag’ (client) they do manage to escape but need to find a way to remove their magic tattoos or ‘favors’ which mark them out as Good Luck Girls. And so starts their journey through the Scab, a mountain range infested with a variety of terrifying ghosts, pursued by the authorities. An interesting feature of this story is that our protagonists are people of colour but the racism in their world is based not on skin colour but on whether you have a shadow or not, a result of an historical anomaly. I liked reading YA where the emphasis is on character development, friendship and social issues with romance coming a distant fourth.
After The Flood, Kassandra Montag
This debut novel is a fine adventure story with a pacy plot and a good dose of intrigue as the characters’ stories are uncovered. After the flood apocalypse, a pregnant woman’s daughter is abducted by her husband and we pick up the story 7 years later when she’s living with her second daughter at sea. For me, post-apocalyptic stories are about the ethical conundrums of the new world and how they cast light on ours. This one had stunning reflections on motherhood, loss, rebuilding the self, and community. A story that wrestles with the question of not only how to survive but how to live.
The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison, Meredith Jaffe
The dressmakers from the title are a bunch of hardened criminals who attend a prison sewing group, learning some skills, mostly dealing with their boredom. It’s risky to reveal anything personal but Derek’s daughter is getting married and he’s looking for a grand gesture to make up for not being there and somehow the group comes up with the idea of making the wedding dress. The logistics are a nightmare as he’s not heard from her in 6 years but the dress takes on a life of its own and changes the guys’ relationships with each other. More hopeful than Orange Is The New Black, less dark than The Shawshank Redemption, this was completely charming. I loved the characters and the exploration of their relationships and was super invested in the dress and its fate and shed a few tears at the end.
Honeybee, Craig Silvey
All the content warnings on this one: parental neglect, homophobia, transphobia, drug and alcohol abuse, death, mental health, suicide, domestic violence.We meet 14yo Sam about to commit suicide, except there’s someone else on the bridge about to do the same and they somehow keep each other alive. (This is not a spoiler – it’s the first page or two!) It takes a while to work out whether our protagonist is a boy or a girl, a deliberate authorial choice presumably because this book is all about Sam’s gender identity. But it’s also about friendship, trust, family and healing. It’s both heartbreaking and uplifting. It would be a mistake to assume that Sam’s experience is representative of all trans people but it’s often said that reading enhances empathy and this book is a great example of that.
A Year of Ravens, various
I’d never read a novel like this before, a collaboration of eight different authors. It’s an historical novel of Boudica, told in seven short stories from the perspectives of various Romans, one of her slaves, her chief warrior, his son, her daughters, etc. The chapters hang together to give a chronological account of the year of rebellion and I didn’t find any to be duds. I’m in historical fiction for the world building and the human stories behind the well known events and this novel definitely delivers. I love how it toyed with my loyalties and perceptions through the perspective switching.
How To Bee, Bren MacDibble
I devoured this I rich and layered story in a day. The narrator is a 9yo girl who aspires to be a ‘bee’ – in this world actual bees have gone extinct and children climb trees to pollinate the orchards so the Urbs (city dwellers) can have fruit. Her absent mum turns up one day determined to take our protagonist away from the farm to work with her in the city. I don’t want to give away more than that! Strong content warning for domestic violence and parental death. Despite themes of disadvantage, mental health and ecological crisis, it’s also a story about common humanity, creating family and keeping promises. It’s actually a tremendously hopeful story.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.